Does Borgen really hold lessons for nationalists?

WHEN Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon takes to the stage in an Edinburgh cinema tonight to introduce a special showing of the final episodes of series two of Danish political TV drama Borgen, she’ll be fulfilling a little personal dream.

As a vocal fan of the show, which follows the personal and public lives of a Denmark’s Prime Minister Birgitte ­Nyborg and those around her, Sturgeon is thrilled by the prospect of meeting its star, Sidse Babett Knudsen, in town to answer questions from an audience representing more than a million television viewers who have turned a subtitled drama shown on BBC Four into a huge hit. Nicola hearts Birgitte.

The Deputy First Minister may be an awestruck fan, but she’s also a shrewd politician. Photos with Birgitte at the Filmhouse will be great PR for Sturgeon: they’ll show her as a peer of one of the very finest female politicians of the times. The message is simple: Birgitte is compassionate and wise, and so am I. The fact that Birgitte isn’t real doesn’t come into play. To aficionados of the show, the final two episodes of which were broadcast last night, she may as well be.

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Commentators have asked why Holyrood can’t be more like Borgen, while female politicians and feminist activists hail Birgitte as an example of how women can and should do politics. It’s a blurring of fiction and reality that can seem like a chattering classes cousin of that moment 15 years ago when then Prime Minister Tony Blair called for the freedom of Deirdre Rachid, a Coronation Street character then also known as the Weatherfield One.

An example appeared last week in the Wings Over Scotland politics blog, where the following point appeared: “We watch Borgen, where the government of an independent country of five million souls is able to project a voice for peace on the world stage. And we ­wonder why Scotland, uniquely, should be different?” (Answer: because Scotland is not a television programme.)

Commentator Lesley Riddoch has offered a more realistic take, identifying the truth of Birgitte Nyborg’s story as being not that women are unable to rise to the top in politics, but that there will probably be a costly personal reckoning.

It’s as logical to ask why Scottish politics can’t be more like Borgen as it is to complain that it’s not enough like Baywatch. But it’s easy to see why the show has become the favourite of the nationalist intelligentsia. Stories which show a small European nation making an ­impact on the world stage, being led with compassion and pragmatism?

But the drama works at another level for the Nationalists, as screenwriter ­Andrea Gibb points out.

Gibb, currently adapting Swallows And Amazons for BBC Films, says: “It does explore big issues, but it’s also ­stylish. The characters are stylish people living stylish lives, but they’re not ostentatious. It’s a kind of style people aspire to. They can imagine living like that.

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“The world of Borgen is as appealing as the politics and the people. That looks like a nice world to live in.”

We might approve of Birgitte’s ­humanity, but we also like her sofa, sitting there in her artfully messy, Sunday supplement lounge. We think Birgitte and her spin doctor, Kasper Juul, are clever and thoughtful and complex, of course. But they’re also sexy.

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For Sturgeon, though, the drama’s appeal lies in its political authenticity. “No,” she insists, when asked if she’s taking a fiction too seriously, “but what it does do, better than any drama I have seen ­before, is get close to the truth about what happens in politics.

“It’s the most credible, authentic political drama I’ve seen. The political stories aren’t off the wall. And I think it shows politicians in a reasonably realistic light – it reminds us that people have private lives and that politicians are ­often trying to do the right thing in difficult circumstances.”

And its representation of low politics? “It does a fair job of showing the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

A recent case of the ugly came in an episode where Birgitte authorised an off-the-record briefing against a colleague. It was a move designed to bring him into line, but it ended his career. This has happened in Scottish politics. It’s happening now. Decent enough ­people do dark things.

But that glimpse of brutality was fleeting. Within a couple of episodes this destroyed politician was back by Birgitte’s side, a trusted negotiator in a peace process. It was a trite reminder that Borgen’s world is far from reality. It may have a darker tone than the politicians’ past love, The West Wing, with all its Team Liberal America enthusiasm and endlessly selfless character, but it is still a fiction.

The political machinations of each Borgen episode would fall flat without the support of meaty storylines about sex abuse, alcoholism, depression and divorce.

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Here, Gibb reminds us that it’s not ­really the idealised politics that draws viewers to Borgen. As with every successful drama, it’s the authenticity of the characters that matters. “What they do so well is take us into Birgitte’s personal life. The first series actually wove the politics with the personal really brilliantly. You saw the dilemmas between her beliefs and the realities of the job. We saw her change over a personal journey.

“The sweeping arc of big stories is ­important, but it’s the way the smaller human stories are set against them that’s so appealing.

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“And it’s testimony to the writing that it deals intelligently with personal ­issues. They take complex personal problems and allow you to put yourself in that position and say ‘yes, that makes sense’. They let us form unsympathetic views of people and leave us to make up our own minds. The characters’ personal stories are brilliantly done and that’s what connects with the audience.”

It’s well written, it looks good, and you may well – having last night watched the final two episodes of the current run – be yearning already for the third.

But it’s just a TV show and tonight’s Sturgeon-Nyborg summit is just fluff, isnt it? The first is true, but the second needn’t be, says Gibb.

“I’m glad Nicola Sturgeon’s doing this. I hope she thinks about how important it is to invest in good drama.

“A striking thing about Borgen is that Denmark has never come across as a small, inward-looking, parochial country. It’s a drama that gives Denmark some ­cultural status that crosses ­borders. I would think that would be appealing to politicians.

“There’s no reason Scotland can’t produce drama that does the same thing. What I hope Nicola Sturgeon takes away from the event is that there is a place for investment in the arts, even in difficult times.” «

Twitter: @euanmccolm